Why Our Beliefs Count More Than Our Actions
For many atheists, no amount of argument will ever convince them that a loving God could consign any of His creation to Hell. One such challenger put his objection like this:
“It does not matter how just, kind, and generous they have been with their fellow humans during their lifetime: if they do not accept the gospel of Jesus, they are condemned. No just God would ever judge a man by his beliefs rather than his actions.”
It is difficult, if not impossible, to provide a satisfying answer to this challenge. After all, even for believers, the doctrine of hell is difficult, and goes against our own inclinations – to forgive ourselves, to lessen our own culpability, to judge ourselves as “basically good.” It’s only by resort to Scripture, and a bit of philosophy, that we affirm that a just God must have a place of punishment if there is to be such a thing as free will.
A “just” God does justice, which means to punish or reward appropriately. In the Western tradition, we punish people for the actions they commit, but the extent of punishment is dependent also on the person’s mental state, and a person’s mental state is reflective of his or her beliefs. Premeditated murder is worse than manslaughter, and is punished more severely, and a hate crime is a sentencing enhancement that adds more punishment to the underlying crime. In both examples, a person’s beliefs are at play: the premeditated murderer has reflected on his choices and wants the victim dead; a hate crime reflects a belief that the rights of a member of the protected group are especially unworthy of respect. So, considering a person’s beliefs may well be relevant, especially if those beliefs have motivated the criminal behavior.But the challenger’s mistake is even more fundamental…
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